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UAE Intervention in Sudan Civil War Deemed Counterproductive

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The Emirati aggressive intervention in the internal war in Sudan between the armed forces led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti” has led to adverse consequences, represented by wide regional support for the Sudanese armed forces.

According to the global platform “World Politics Review,” recent weeks have seen Iranian cargo aircraft touching down in Port Sudan, which serves as the base for the Sudanese government led by the military following the capture of the capital Khartoum by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

Last month, Hemedti’s forces shot down an Iranian drone operated by the Sudanese Armed Forces.

The website noted that both occurrences validate claims that the Sudanese government’s recent reestablishment of diplomatic ties with Iran was coupled with military backing for the conflict that erupted last April.

It further mentioned that Sudan had previously cut ties with Iran in 2016 at the behest of Saudi Arabia following attacks by Iranian protesters on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran. Hence, its choice to re-establish relations with Tehran marks a significant departure in the restructuring of alliances pursued by the Sudanese government.

This change is leading to significant geopolitical repercussions across the Horn of Africa, where the UAE has held the primary role among Gulf States in recent years, as per Ibrahim’s assessment. He characterizes the current events as a consequence contrary to Abu Dhabi’s objectives in Sudan.

In recent months, the relationship between Sudan and the UAE has markedly worsened due to Abu Dhabi’s backing of the Rapid Support Forces. In January, Yasser Atta, the deputy leader of the Sudanese Armed Forces, labeled the UAE as a “criminal state.”

Last month, a UN expert team confirmed Sudan’s accusations of UAE arming the Rapid Support Forces, despite UAE’s denial, its involvement is acknowledged, even by Washington.

A group of US Congress members wrote a letter to UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan in December, asking the UAE to “end its support for the Rapid Support Forces.”

These tensions highlight the notable shift since 2019 when the UAE played a key role in ousting former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and backing the subsequent transition in line with its preferences and interests.

Following Al-Bashir’s ousting, the Sudanese transitional government, which was led by civilians and with which Abu Dhabi was quick to develop relations, commenced restructuring the nation’s foreign relations in alignment with UAE interests.

Abu Dhabi facilitated Sudan’s efforts to improve relations with Washington despite Khartoum’s designation as a terrorism supporter. This assistance involved mediating communication between the post-revolution Sudanese government and US officials in the UAE in late 2020.

In January 2021, Nasraldin Abdel Bari, then Sudanese Minister of Justice, endorsed the Abraham Accords  on behalf of the transitional government during a ceremony attended by US Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin.

However, the conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces erupted before Sudan officially signed the normalization agreements with Israel.

The Arab and Islamic nations’ involvement in diplomatic normalization was crucial for the UAE’s efforts to contain Iran. Abu Dhabi worked to counter Iran’s influence in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa while expanding its influence through port management deals and military enforcement measures

Within this framework, a global investment firm has assumed control of the Berbera port’s development in Somaliland, aiming to oversee its management, as well as a port on the Yemeni side of the Red Sea.

Following extensive deployment of territorial forces by Iran-backed Houthis, the UAE seized control of Mayun and Socotra islands, thereby gaining dominance over crucial maritime chokepoints in the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Gulf of Aden.

In light of this, the UAE’s support for the Rapid Support Forces has proven to yield adverse results, as by pushing the Sudanese armed forces into Tehran’s embrace, Abu Dhabi has granted Iran a foothold in the Red Sea.

The conflict setback efforts against political Islam in Sudan, per Ibrahim. The coup regime, led by Al-Burhan and Hemedti before their split, reinstated dismissed Islamists and raided the Asset Recovery Committee’s offices pursuing embezzled assets.

After fighting broke out between the two former partners in April, Hemedti regretted his participation in the coup, describing it in a recent interview as a “trap” set by Burhan to revive Islamists.

While his framing of the civil war as a battle against “radical Islamists” is exaggerated for self-interest, the conflict has fueled a trend toward empowering and strengthening Islamists within the Sudanese Armed Forces and the government, according to Ibrahim.

In June of last year, as an illustration, Al-Burhan designated Muhammad Ahmed Haj Majid to head the initiatives of the Popular Mobilization Forces aimed at strengthening the armed forces’ capacities. Additionally, he allowed for the recruitment of individuals interested in opposing the Rapid Support Forces.

Majid was an enthusiastic participant in the “jihad” against rebels in South Sudan during Sudan’s decades-long civil war and also led the “Martyr Organization,” a government-sponsored charity that distributes funds to the families and relatives of fallen fighters in the war in the south.

Moreover, additional paramilitary factions with Islamist inclinations have reemerged to support the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). This includes the “Brigade of Bara’a bin Malik,” composed of youthful Islamists associated with the Sudanese Islamic Movement. Additionally, there’s the Special Operations Unit, a militant segment of the Intelligence and National Security Service, predominantly influenced by Islamists and adherents of Salah Gosh, the former intelligence chief during Bashir’s regime.

Following the ousting of Al-Bashir, the disbandment of the Special Operations Unit occurred with Hemedti’s backing. However, Al-Burhan reinstated it to combat the Rapid Support Forces.

In this context, Abraham contends that the UAE’s reliance on the Rapid Support Forces was a significant misjudgment. Although Hemedti’s forces have been militarily dominant since the outbreak of fighting 10 months ago, their inability to strengthen the state in the areas under their control it represents a major stumbling block to its ability to remain an Emirati alternative in the long term.

The Central Bank, government ministries, and foreign diplomatic missions also moved to Port Sudan after the fall of Khartoum into the hands of the Rapid Support Forces, which have not yet established any parallel institutions in the areas under their control.

Funding aside, the RSF lacks governance knowledge and suffers from “questionable command and control,” and its soldiers have engaged in brutal looting of homes, banks, factories, and all production infrastructure in areas under its control.

At the onset of the conflict, RSF soldiers fired upon departing diplomatic convoys, assaulted Aidan O’Hara, the European Union ambassador in Sudan, at his residence, At the onset of the conflict, RSF soldiers fired upon departing diplomatic convoys, assaulted Aidan O’Hara, the European Union ambassador in Sudan, at his residence, and inflicted suffering on civilians wherever they gained control, leading to mass displacement whenever new territory was captured.

Furthermore, Hemedti lacks the competitive advantages enjoyed by UAE-supported proxies in other conflict zones.

While Khalifa Haftar, the UAE’s representative in Libya, commands significant oil-rich territories, enabling him to establish a quasi-autonomous entity. Similarly, Aidaroos Al-Zubaidi, leader of the Southern Transitional Council in Yemen, redirected revenue from taxes and customs duties collected at ports and the Aden refinery away from the internationally recognized government’s control.

The Rapid Support Forces control an inland region in Sudan, where ongoing conflict has dismantled all state-supporting institutions.

Although Hemedti garners informal backing from a coalition of civilian political figures in Sudan, these leaders have not returned to the country since departing at the onset of the conflict. Their association with Hemedti has led to their branding as enemies of the state.

The analysis concludes that without a power-sharing agreement with the Sudanese Armed Forces or achieving a decisive military victory, the Rapid Support Forces cannot establish themselves as a self-sustaining proxy of the UAE, similar to Abu Dhabi’s allies in Yemen and Libya. Instead, they may only engage in a prolonged insurgency, worsening civilian suffering and perpetuating the UAE’s tarnished reputation from its involvement in the conflict.